‘What now?’: Leadership in the Covid era and beyond

Agility, culture, diversity, empathy and compassion will be the traits that will define leaders in the post-Covid business world, writes Stafford Bagot of Heidrick & Struggles.

Little did I know, when the Dublin office of Heidrick & Struggles opened, that only a year later the world would be stopped in its tracks by a global health emergency not seen before in any of our lifetimes.

It is not all doom and gloom though, with its highly skilled, educated and motivated workforce, Ireland offers a clear opportunity for business.

“Leaders that show vision and act with empathy can ensure the survival of their business and overcome the roadblock to success that is Covid-19”

The challenge is, how to lead an organisation to not only survive, but to prosper during a global pandemic?

Agility

The first, and arguably the most important trait is that leaders must be able to roll with the punches and lead the company in facing the challenges presented; be this battening down the hatches or changing strategic course completely.

Overcoming the crisis may be daunting and the road ahead will not be smooth for all, however, leaders need to face the uncertainty head on, tackle the challenges presented and analyse how the company is best placed to overcome them (this may be through a strategic pivot, new partnerships, securing investment, or product line consolidation etc.).

Leaders need to have the confidence and power to be able to affect change as necessary within their organisation.

Culture-shaping

In the face of any crisis, especially one with the scale and impact as large as that of Covid-19, it is imperative to implement a strategy that enhances the probability of a business surviving.

The future of a business depends on the strategy put in place and the culture fostered by a leader.

Strategic business succession is at the forefront of what we set out to do at Heidrick & Struggles, paired with improving culture and diversity. During 2020 so far, leaders have reacted to the situation by facilitating working from home practices where possible, changing workplace dynamics and wholly altering the ways in which business is conducted.

The Covid-19 situation is continually evolving. Recently, employees of businesses in London were urged to return to offices with ministers warning about the impact on the economy and business in city centres if people continued to stay at home.

Dublin had opened for business and has now gone back into a localised lockdown for a number of weeks. This may be the case for some time as Covid-19 shows no signs of disappearing. Adapting and acting with agility is crucial. Identifying new opportunities and methods to conduct business will be a defining factor of the success of every business.

Diversity is key

Based on years of market research and insight we are advising businesses to hire systematically in the current uncertain economic landscape. We are committed, when shortlisting potential candidates, to having equal representation of both men and women.

This is not to say that the firm actively seeks out one type of person over the other, but instead that it facilitates diversity within the organisation because we know that diversity leads to better decision making.

Our Board Monitor 2020 report found that 60pc of new director seats filled in Ireland went to women; this was the highest percentage of the countries studied and 10pc above the European average. This is a huge improvement from last year when the figure sat at 29pc. This is excellent progress and we hope that this momentum continues.

It is essential that leaders ensure that they build an appropriately represented pipeline of talent in terms of gender, to feed into the upper echelons of organisations and their boards.

The human dimension

During these much discussed “unprecedented times”, leaders have to remember their humanity.

People are scared, facing an unknown situation and the potential health implications with added pressures of working from home and the disconnect that that brings. Above all, leaders need to create supportive networks and collaborate with their team through high-quality relationships.

This is a difficult time for many people across the country and the world over. Leaders that are empathetic and act in an authentic way could lessen the stress people are feeling. Employees, clients and other external stakeholders will remember how businesses acted throughout this crisis.

Showing compassion is vital not only to the current stability of any business in these uncertain times, but also the future prosperity of the organisation.

The role that corporate leaders play

Leaders of industry are undoubtedly facing more challenges than ever before as a result of Covid-19. As many of these challenges are entirely unprecedented there is no instruction-book provided on how to best navigate the storm.

Slashes to jobs and salaries, having to take restructuring measures, business shrinkage and the closure of entire businesses are all very real obstacles that many leaders are currently facing and are likely to continue to experience long into the foreseeable future, or until Covid-19 can be contained. Businesses therefore need strong leaders to lead them into growth.

The role of corporate leaders is to demonstrate agility and a willingness to remain resilient in even the most adverse commercial conditions.

The working world has seen other crises, where access to capital may have been limited or other non-financial challenges presented themselves, but innovation can still flourish. Through a supportive and collaborative framework within their organisations, leaders that show vision and act with empathy can ensure the survival of their business and overcome the roadblock to success that is Covid-19.

Dark-haired man in grey suit.

Stafford Bagot leads Heidrick & Struggles’ operations in Ireland from the firm’s Dublin office and is managing partner for the Engineering, Infrastructure & Sustainability Practice. He has worked with the firm in Dublin, Singapore and Sydney. Stafford has conducted a number of global searches, helping chairmen and CEOs to attract and secure both non-executive directors and senior executives to form the leadership teams for both indigenous and multinational organisations. His experience around succession planning, particularly for listed and private equity companies, is unique.